Arrests Don't End Wage Protests

University of Virginia undergraduate Nina Robbins was among 17 activists arrested Saturday after a four-day sit-in at the school's administration building to protest wages paid to university employees. An afternoon rally was held yesterday, and a vigil was planned for last night.
University of Virginia undergraduate Nina Robbins was among 17 activists arrested Saturday after a four-day sit-in at the school's administration building to protest wages paid to university employees. An afternoon rally was held yesterday, and a vigil was planned for last night. (Living Wage Campaign)
By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

The arrests Saturday evening of 17 University of Virginia students who had occupied a campus building for four days to protest the wages paid to university employees did nothing to deter a crowd of demonstrators yesterday, as students continued to call for higher pay.

If anything, the arrests on the Charlottesville campus seemed to fuel the passion of the student activists, several said in telephone interviews. Dozens of activists attended an afternoon rally outside the administration building where the 17 students had sat since Wednesday morning until their arrests on trespassing charges. And a vigil was planned for last night.

Today, the students said, the demonstrations will continue outside the Albemarle County Courthouse in support of the detained students, who are scheduled to go before a judge at 8:30 a.m.

Another afternoon rally will feature author Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book about poverty-level wages, "Nickel and Dimed," has encouraged the nationwide campaign to raise salaries for minimum-wage earners.

Across the United States in recent years, students at universities, including Harvard, the University of Texas and Stanford, have taken up the cause of campus employees whom they viewed as underpaid. Last year at Georgetown University, for example, students staged a hunger strike that lasted nine days. University officials agreed to raise hourly wages to $14, from $11.33.

At U-Va., the campaign to pay a so-called living wage to non-faculty employees, such as custodians, food workers and landscapers, has been going on since 1998.

"The big-picture message here is that the living wage movement is only growing stronger," said Abby Bellows, a fourth-year student from Fairfax County and one of several organizers of the campus's Living Wage Campaign. "The university is being irresponsible in its treatment of workers . . . forcing some of them to rely on food stamps and second jobs."

Until last month, the lowest hourly wage at the university had been $8.88. It was increased to $9.37 after several campus rallies and discussions between university officials and the student organizers, officials said.

Still, it's less than the $10.72 that students say is the minimum required to take care of a family.

In a letter to the student group that was posted Wednesday on the university's Web site, President John T. Casteen III wrote that officials believe "our schedules are fair, that they do not constitute what you have represented to the public as poverty wages."

The $10.72 figure, Bellows said, was determined using factors outlined by the Economic Policy Institute, which calculates the cost of living for communities across the country and defines a living wage as the basic amount needed to subsist. It includes money for housing, transportation, health care, child care, taxes and other necessities.

In Charlottesville, Bellows said, that total is just under $11 each for two working parents and two children.


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